Forthcoming

"Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another." author Toni Morrison (1931- 05.08.2019)

“If I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me”; Nora Ephron, author/comedian

"Make your story count". Michelle Obama

"Social pain is understood through the lens of racial animus". Researcher/author Sean McElwee writing in Salon, 2016

"We are citizens, not subjects. We have the right to criticize government without fear."  Chelsea Manning; activist/whisleblower

“My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you, And no fascist minded people, like you, will drive me from it. Is that clear?” Paul Robeson; activist/singer

“We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent”. from civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson

“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?” Frederick Douglass, WHAT TO THE SLAVE IS 4TH JULY? 07.05.1852 (full text in blog)

Senator Elizabeth Warren "We're a country that is built on our differences; that is our strength, not our weakness"

 

"We are more alike than we are different"v  Maya Angelou

As a Black writer, I was expected to accept the role of victim. That made it difficult in the beginning to be a writer.      James Baldwin

I often feel that there must have been something that I should’ve done that I didn’t do. But I can’t identify what it is that I didn’t do. That’s the first difficulty. And the second is, what makes you think you’re it?   

         Harry Belafonte, activist and singer at 89

 

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble; It's what you know for sure that just ainst so.

Mark Twain

 

You can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you.

Mary Tyler Moore

 

 You can’t defend Christianity by being against refugees and other religions

Pope Francis:

 

"I don't have to be what you want me to be". Muhammad Ali

"The Secret of Living Well and Longer: eat half, walk double, laugh triple, and love without measure"  attributed to Tibetan sources

Recent audio posts include interviews with Rumi interpreter Shahram Shiva, London-based author Aamer Hussein, South African Muslim scholar, professor Farid Esack, and Iraqi journalist Nermeen Al-Mufti's brief account of Kirkuk City history. Your comments on our blogs are always welcome.

 

Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look

2018-08-29

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I found myself well into my career as an anthropologist specializing in Himalayan peoples, I came across an historical episode concerning two no-longer living but obviously brilliant women who had performed remarkable political feats in the early 20th century. I undertook to uncover their stories, determined first because inspired by feminist revelations, I myself was in search of women heroes, and second because I had had enough of anthropology’s imperialist claims of scientific impartiality. This meant my breaking from both traditional research methodologies and from academic writing conventions.

            I’d been a social anthropologist, (ethnographer, of the British School) relying on intensive interviews, and, as we claimed, ‘objective participation observation’. (Ethnography is in fact more akin to journalism than academics will acknowledge.)

            Since my subjects were no longer alive I could not apply face-to-face interviews or behavioral observation-- they were already becoming mythical characters-- and the few people alive who’d known them were quite elderly. Moreover, those leaders had been political activists at a time when criticism of Nepal’s monarch, its officials and the powerful Hindu priest class was prohibited; any resurgence of interest would be stifled for another decade after my arrival at the site of the early protests.

            Those women’s fantastic careers happened on the steamy shore of the roaring Arun Kola deep in the Himalayas. It was possible to imagine past glories there, however isolated and overlooked it now seemed. So I pressed on determinedly.

            I was dealing with individuals wildly unrepresentative of their culture. Both were outrageous, atypical characters. A sociological approach was out of the question. And, although the women died only four decades earlier, there was no written record I could find, not initially. My determination proved rewarding because at the time (1980-85) I was welcomed by a small community of ascetics, all women, who’d known both of those radicals. Now quite elderly, they felt impervious to any government retaliation for assisting me.

            These ladies enthusiastically spoke about Shakti Yogmaya and Durga Devi—the first a revolutionary, the second a reformer-- who they‘d once followed. Recluses, now in their 70s and 80s, they vividly remembered how fifty and sixty years earlier, they’d been filled with fervor and faith in social reform.

            Based on their accounts I managed two academic reports. But these stories needed a more creative approach and I began my first attempts at biography. I was aided by the contemporary Nepali poet Parijat who introduced me to the perilous political work she herself was engaged in. She and I worked on translating the provocative quadrants of the long dead Shakti Yogmaya which in turn initiated me into Nepal’s political history.

            Nepal was still a dictatorship in the 1980s and attention to events surrounding Yogmaya were risky. A known dissident across Nepal, Parijat was not to be intimidated and she encouraged me to persist.

            My book Heir to a Silent Song appeared 17 years ago, published in English in Nepal. That effort propelled me out of the academic world and set me on my career in journalism. Meanwhile more revelations about Yogmaya, the most radical woman who Nepal had ever produced, attracted a new generation of capable, dedicated Nepali scholars.

            Some historical characters, like this Nepali rebel of the early 20th century, are too wild and unwieldy for normal history to grasp. And today, we have a wonderful example of where literature can overtake and outshine scholarly efforts. Shakti Yogmaya, the subject of the eponymous novel published early this year, has just won The Madan Puraskar, Nepal’s most prestigious prize in literature. It’s authored by the US-based Nepali writer Neelam Niharika who writes in Nepali language and is already known for her ambitious historical novels.

            Of course I am thrilled that this novel builds on my and other scholars’ efforts starting almost forty years earlier. (It was a colleague of Niharika at Radio Nepal four years ago, who reading those histories, suggested she turn her creative energy to Yogmaya.)

            Niharika had no obligation to remain within the boundaries of our accounts. Yet, she undertook more research. In a recent conversation she explained how she interviewed whomever she could in the very hills where Yogmaya’s political campaign occurred almost a hundred years ago. Not herself from the Arun River valley region, Niharika launched a visit there to know more about where Yogmaya was born. (This, after she’d reached locals through social media and phone, to schedule onsite meetings.) The area is much changed but this novelist still conducted her own fieldwork, using modern communications to her advantage. Not only this; she made a video of her arrival in the area, its ecology, recording conversations with local notables of what they remembered of that history.

            The novel “Yogmaya” begins with an imaginary conversation between me and the novelist Parijat, thus emphasizing a line of women who helped shape Niharika’s own historical inquiry.

            “Yogamaya”’s recognition by the nation’s highest literary prize rewards not only a skilled young author. The subject itself—a local woman warrior—will gain wider traction, inspiring a following which no amount of scholarly articles might. At a time when Nepal is sodden with questionable gender development projects that dwell on the ‘poor and vulnerable victim’ and where many educated urban women, following western feminists, express hardly more than institutional sympathy for their ‘deprived’ rural sisters, this novel offers a fresh look at what a village woman can do.

             Perhaps anthropologists too may learn how to honor the natives they study with the creation of quality biographies they deserve.  

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